Whether you're looking to build strength, improve flexibility, or learn the exquisite art of Om-ing, making yoga a regular part of your schedule is a smart idea. But if you're new to the practice, it can be hard to know where to unroll your mat for the first time—or how to decode the language that describes the classes on offer at your local studio or gym. What's the difference between "hatha" and "ashtanga"? Is "Bikram" a person, a brand, or both? How hot is a "hot yoga" class? Here's the rundown of the most common yoga styles on offer in the West, and what they mean to you as a new student.
Strictly speaking, just about any yoga class is hatha yoga; the word roughly translates from the Sanskrit as "forceful," and refers to the physical practice of yoga asana (postures) and prana (breathing). But in advertising-speak, you can expect classes described as "hatha yoga" to be basic, gentle, and relatively generic. You won't be climbing into your own bellybutton or balancing on your elbows for hours, but you'll come away with a good beginner's foundation in yoga, a few new Sanskrit vocabulary words, and a sense of the way classes are typically structured.
If you want a serious workout with solid cultural roots, consider this rigorous, intensely physical style of yoga that opens and closes with a traditional Sanskrit chant. Usually found at yoga studios devoted exclusively to ashtanga practice, classes will take you through multiple sun salutations followed by a series of sequenced poses (Primary, Intermediate, or Advanced). Ashtanga practice is high energy from start to finish, so be ready to work—and to be inspired by the advanced students performing each familiar movement with gravity-defying acrobatic grace.
3. YIN YOGA
If you've ever assumed that a slower-paced yoga class must also be easier, allow yin yoga to disabuse you of that notion. You'll do fewer poses in a yin class, but you'll hold them for an eternity … or at least, that's what it feels like after a full 60 seconds in side angle. Most yin yoga is advertised as such, but when in doubt, look for keywords like "depth," "stillness," "silence," and "long holds." You'll also get more out of these classes if you already have a working knowledge of asana, prana, and mudra (engagement), so if you're brand new to yoga, consider getting your feet wet in another style before you tackle yin.
This is the ideal style of yoga for those who like it hot, and then some. Bikram is a branded yoga practice in which students run through 26 distinct poses, always in the same sequence, in a room heated to a steamy 112°F. No surprises here: You're going to sweat a lot.
The intense heat can be a boon to students who struggle with flexibility—but a danger to newbies who don't know their limits and are at risk of overstretching to the point of injury, so beware. And if you want to try this particular yoga style, you'll only find it at a studio bearing the Bikram name (which, er, might be familiar if you've been watching the news lately; Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram yoga, was recently ordered to pay $6.5 million in damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit).
Vinyasa is the Sanskrit word for "flow," and that's what you'll do in these yoga classes that focus on extended asana sequences with smooth transitions from pose to pose. If you're practicing yoga at the gym, this is most likely what you're getting—and classes can run the gamut from mellow to vigorous, so read the descriptions carefully. Words like "power" or "energetic" indicate a serious bodyweight workout, while "gentle" or "meditative" means a quieter class with less arm balancing and more seated postures.
And keep an eye out for a number attached to the class name; a level II or III designation means a faster pace and more advanced poses. Finally, unlike Bikram or ashtanga yoga, the sequencing of vinyasa is entirely at the discretion of the person running it—which means that a good teacher can really make the difference between an amazing yoga class and an awkward, boring one.
6. HOT YOGA
The heat of Bikram, the versatility of vinyasa: Hot yoga combines the two into a very sweaty class experience. The only difference between regular vinyasa and hot vinyasa: The latter takes place in a room heated to (approximately) 95°F. But at 25 degrees above room temperature, it's a big difference.
Named after the late B.K.S. Iyengar, this style of yoga is defined by its focus on alignment. If you're taking classes at an Iyengar studio, expect each pose to be accompanied by detailed instructions and corrections if you're not quite getting it right. (If you're not at a studio, you may still be able to spot an Iyengar-trained teacher at your gym thanks to his or her highly specific adjustments.) Although not everyone loves the prescriptive, precise nature of Iyengar, it can be especially useful for new yogis who need a crash course in anatomy and mindful body positioning.
8. RESTORATIVE YOGA
Don't expect a workout in this slow, meditative class. In fact, you might not even stand up. Where a typical yoga practice involves active, intense stretching, restorative yoga uses blocks, bolsters, blankets, and the force of gravity to gently relax and open the body, usually from a seated or prone position on the floor. But if you don't mind a quieter brand of yoga, restorative classes can be wonderfully refreshing—and if you're exhausted or stressed out, some mindful stillness might be just what you need.
9. NAKED YOGA
Depending on where you live, you may have access to naked yoga—and yep, it's just what it sounds like. These vinyasa classes are just as serious as any other yoga class, and most of the studios keep their addresses under wraps and screen their students to weed out the pervs … but if you're so confident in your practice that you're ready to do it in the nude, in public, you probably knew that already.